Abandoned Vermont: Vergennes House

This striking 1796 Federal style house in Vergennes, Vermont is the General Samuel Strong House. It is a favorite mystery to many passersby. Unoccupied for decades, this house is more neglected than abandoned, but every Christmas season there is a fresh wreath on the door and the community keeps an eye on the house year round.

Christmas wreath on the front door.

Christmas wreath on the front door.

View from the sidewalk.

View from the sidewalk.

From the street.

From the street. In the foliage months, you can barely see the house.

The side entrance has been removed.

The side entrance has been removed.

Rear of the house, where a porch previously existed.

Rear of the house, where a porch previously existed.

Boarded up windows.

Boarded up windows, but check out the lintels.

Classic clapboard shot.

Classic clapboard shot with alligatoring paint.

And we are in luck. This house has been documented by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) in 1936. Find photographs and floor plans here via the Library of Congress. Here is the house in better days:

The Samuel Strong House in Vergennes as documented for HABS/Library of Congress. Click for digital source.

The Samuel Strong House in Vergennes as documented for HABS/Library of Congress. Click for digital source.

 What a beauty.

Overhills Revisited

Overhills will forever remain a beloved memory of mine and a peaceful bubble of a world in the rural sandhills of North Carolina. I may not have lived or visited Overhills during its life as an active hunting retreat or family retreat, but I had the honor and pleasure of working for the buildings and the people who inhabited and loved Overhills. There was  a point in time when I thought that there would never be a day when I did not think of Overhills; but, years have passed since my oral history work finished and it now seems like a dream, like another world. My thoughts on Overhills are spaced further apart, but no less meaningful. The place, the people, the project have helped to define who I am. (The oral history project report can be accessed and downloaded through Fort Bragg.)

Aside from the Overhills Oral History Project, the property was documented under the Historic American Landscape Survey for the Library of Congress as the Overhills Historic District. (Read the HALS report.)Many of the records have been digitized: photographs of Overhills, floor plans, landscape plans, historical research. Not everything is digitized yet, but it is enough to trigger memories as I browse through the collection. Take a look with me.

Nursery Road, one of the roads through Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-26. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills approach road to the Hill. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-15. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills polo barn. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-16. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Croatan, a house at Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-8. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

These pictures remind me of the drive to and through Overhills, walking the grounds through the long leaf pines, exploring and attempting to learn as much as I could about the layout and landscape, piecing together historical research & oral history, visiting the houses and barns and imagining Overhills in its heyday.

Sadly, today, Overhills continues to deteriorate and/or suffers from vandalism. It pains me to hear of another building that has caught fire or to come across current Overhills pictures scattered across the internet that show the state of the place. It is incredibly sad, amplified by the fact that I know the stories and the history and the people of Overhills. Eventually, I’ll stop randomly searching for Overhills photos on search engines.

However, the HALS photographs and documents, in addition to the oral history project products, allow the good memories to stay with me. So I continue to look through the documentation. I don’t want to forget anything I know about Overhills. I’m sure my reaction time to specific questions – probably those found in the Overhills archives – is delayed from a few years ago, but that’s okay. I remember the bigger pictures. While my preference is preservation and rehabilitation instead of mitigation, I understand the importance and strength of proper and creative documentation because of this project. No matter which memory strikes me, I am reminded of the significant and unique story of Overhills, and how much I love(d) it.

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Other posts about Overhills: 3 Hours in the Life of an Oral Historian. Carolina Day. Another Day in the Field. My Ode to Oral History. Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin & Kaitlin O’Shea. Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated. Overhills Book Release. Johnny. Those Unknown Photograph Subjects. Why They Don’t Let Me Outside. Time Travel Wish. Voice as a Powerful Primary Source.

How to Photograph a Bridge

In the world of transportation and preservation, I spend a lot of time around bridges, conducting resource IDs, evaluating the historic significance of these bridges and reviewing projects for any adverse effects to our historic bridges and adjacent historic resources. Anyone who conducts resources IDs in the field knows that photographing the project area and the resource is a vital part of documentation and research. Why are photographs important? By photographing particular elements of structures – whether buildings or bridges – it is possible to date the historic resource by construction methods and materials used. Architectural styles date buildings, but also date bridges. Railings, deck systems and truss types allow for dating bridges.

Most often, preservationists photograph buildings and districts, but not necessarily bridges.  Just as it is important to properly photograph a building (all elevations, 3/4 shots, details, context), there is a correct way to photograph bridges. The Historic American Buildings Survey and the National Park Service have similar guidelines (your State Historic Preservation Office has likely adopted these same guidelines) for photographing architectural structures. HABS/HAER documentation includes (1) historical research, (2) measured drawings and (3) photography.

The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) provides four main guidelines (see page 4) for photographing bridges. While these are somewhat vague, it is a good starting point and basic checklist. All bridges are different, so it would be hard to have one comprehensive list.  Want some preservation jargon? We usually say “photo-doc” for short – obviously for photographic documentation. Up for some photo-doc? Let’s go through these four HAER guidelines with a variety of examples.

1. General views of all sides.

Photograph all sides/elevations of a bridge.

The Windsor-Cornish Covered Bridge, connecting Windsor VT to Cornish NH. Actually, this is from NH, so it's the Cornish-Windsor Bridge. This photograph is not ideal because it doesn't capture the entire bridge; it should. Smaller bridges are much easier. If I were documenting this one, I'd have to find a better view or go for a swim in the river.

The bridge openings count as sides and should be photographed, too, along with the approach to the bridge and the contextual surroundings. Context is important for determining the significance of a bridge. This is also helpful for an approach detail photo.

2. Detail views of portals, portal connections, upper chord connections, vertical members, traffic deck, bridge plates, manufacturer’s badge and any decorative features.

Truss bridges are more complicated to document (I think) but again, take note and photograph the connection details like on this pin truss.

Photograph the connection details. This picture shows the hand cut connection for the metal baluster and the bolt connection to the concrete post.

Photograph the railing connection to the endwall or post.

Many bridges have the date stamped on the endwall and have a state bridge plaque. These are important historic features of the bridge.

Of course, make sure to photograph the truss members in order to identify which type of truss. This a Town Lattice Truss covered bridge. On some bridges, you will be able to photograph this detail from the outside (e.g. on metal truss bridges). If not, photograph the details inside.

Photograph truss bridge chords and diagonals and connection bolts.

Railings! Photograph the railings, whether concrete, metal, cable or other.

3. If accessible, the traffic deck support system (such as floor beams and stringers viewed from underneath the bridge).

Underneath the bridge you can see the connections of chords, joists, floor beams, etc.

If you can safely access the bank adjacent to the bridge, photograph the bridge piers. This photograph shows the center pier, one abutment, and a general view of the deck support.

This photograph shows the detail of the pier, deck support, and the railing in addition to the steel girders.

4. Abutments and approach details.

This photograph shows the railing and endwall connection and the barely visible wood & cable approach rail.

Under the bridges you can see the abutments (that massive concrete abutment is not original to this covered bridge) and the floor beam system.

This photograph shows the abutment (new concrete abutment faced in dry laid stone. You can see the concrete on the bottom left of this image and above the top row of stone on the far side of the bridge).

Photograph the approach to this bridge to show the height of the portal (opening), the type of guardrail (weathered W-beam mounted on wood posts) and other details such as the narrow single lane approach.

And there you have it. In review, when photographing a bridge, remember to include

(1) all sides of the bridge; 

(2) details such as connections, railings, plaques;

(3) the deck and piers – what supports the bridge from below; and

(4) approach details: the abutment, guard rail, endwall.

By all means, you do not have to be a professional to photograph bridges. Some bridges are beautiful and make quite the statement on the landscape and built environment. I don’t claim to be an expert; I’m always working to improve my documentation skills.  Hopefully this gets you more familiar with bridges and ready to practice your photography on more than buildings. Enjoy!

Sometimes you have crawl on the abutments to really see what's going on with the bridge.

P.S. A few safety notes. Climbing over, under and around bridges can be dangerous. Do  not do this alone. Abutments, wingwalls and all sections of the bridges can be slippery and treacherous. Beware of swiftly moving waterways below. If you park on the side of the road, leave your flashers on and wear reflective gear. Do not trespass. If you photographing deteriorated or abandoned bridges, beware of holes in the deck and unsafe structures. Basically, use your common sense and be safe.

Preservation in Pop Culture

I know I am late in the game here. Humor me, please. There are few television shows that I watch, and those few are the shows to which I am addicted: Gilmore Girls and Scrubs. My love for Gilmore Girls is thoroughly documented, whereas my love of Scrubs is just a new fun fact. Anyway, within the past few months, Vinny and I have finally started watching Mad Men. (Actually, we already watched all 4 seasons. I don’t joke about addictions.) I love Mad Men for the writing, the outfits, the decor, the continuous references to actual happenings in society, the insight into the advertising world and the sheer shock I feel during every episode. I am constantly grateful for the fact that I did not grow up or live until the 1980s and beyond.

Season 3 begins in early 1963; in Episode 2, “Love Among the Ruins,” the infamous Penn Station (yes, that Penn Station) makes an appearance. It’s not a large role, but I loved that a relevant preservation topic was discussed as a background current event to the show. Great job, Mad Men! In brief: Pete Campbell brings in clients who are in favor of razing Penn Station to replace it with an arena. Paul Kinsie sides with the protestors, in agreement with the architectural merit of the Station. Not much else happens in the episode with Penn Station until, Lane Pryce tells Don Draper the HQ (in London) wants the Madison Square Garden account dropped. Don disagrees, believing that it opens the door for the World’s Fair and future Madison Square Garden business. He clearly believes it is progress and the best thing for New York City. He states, “New York City is in decay.” There is no conclusion to this segment – it’s never mentioned again.

Okay, so the lack of follow through was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen Mad Men’s take on the actual Penn Station case. But, it was still exciting to see in such a popular television show. Check out the behind the scenes clip. (Now that I discovered the behind the scenes clips, I’ve probably ruined my productivity after dinner. Great.)

Jane Jacobs and Philip Johnson in front of the old Penn Station in 1963. Life Image/Getty Images. Click for source.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Penn Station case, the easiest explanation is that supporters of the building lost. It was demolished, and the preservation movement grew in greater force and importance. The blog post, “Lead Us Not into Penn Station” by Ed Driscoll offers a good summary of the Penn Station context.  Here is a Penn Station summary from the New York Preservation Archive Project.

East Facade, Penn Station. Library of Congress HABS. Click for source.

Library of Congress HABS collection - Penn Station, Concourse from SE. Click for source.

Penn Station Concourse. Library of Congress, HABS.

You can check out the full collection of HABS Pennsylvania Station photographs at Library of Congress – click here. I think it is time for me to read Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks by Anthony C. Wood. In the meantime, I’m still psyched about the mention in Mad Men (as were my fellow preservationists around here, who have also just started watching). If you haven’t started watching yet, you should.

Historic Preservation Basics No. 7

Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation. No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation. No. 3 = Let’s Talk about Architecture / The Very Beginning of Describing Buildings. No. 4 = Let’s Talk about Buildings A Bit More.     No. 5 = The National Register of Historic Places (What You Should Know). No. 6 = The History of Historic Preservation.

No. 7 = The Basics of Documentation

Much of our work in historic preservation involves recording our past, often by way of documenting the built environment. When our environment is documented, we can connect it to people, events, and other places and tell our collective history.

Simply put, documentation of a historic structure involves three parts: (1) historical research, (2) measured drawings, and (3) photography. Each has standards established by the National Park Service / Historic American Buildings Survey, and these standards remain the industry practice. An excellent source is the book Recording Historic Structures by John Burns, which teaches the reader the HABS/HAER/HALS standards for documentation.

This post will not outline the standards, but rather, give you and introduction to what documentation involves, and hopefully inspire you to start practicing on your house.

Keep in mind that more than buildings can and are documented; sites, structures, objects, districts, landscapes… they count, too! Saying historic “building” just streamlines the discussion. Now, let’s begin.

(1) Historical Research

What is the history of ownership of the building? Who has lived there? What functions has the building served? Is there any available information about how it has changed? Are any historic photographs to be found? The extent of research  and details will vary by project (i.e. funding, time, purpose), but the goals are the same.

How do you find this information? Many of these items can be found at your local library.

a) Deed Research (City Hall, Town Offices, County Clerk’s office — depending on where you live. A few lucky places such as Cumberland County, NC have their land records digitized). Some locations will require that you pay for your time and photocopies. Some are charging now for digital photograph permission, too! But if you are a student or an educational endeavor, you can probably ask to have the fee waived.

b) Historic Maps – Beers, Wallingford, Sanborn Insurance Maps, Plat Maps. Check your library and ask for help. In some cases you might find them online through sites such as the David Rumsey Map Collection. Maps will help you date your property and sometimes identify former landowners.

c) City Directories – These are usually only for larger cities and not small towns (like Sanborn Maps), but they can provide information on the use of the building and the owners.

d) Miscellaneous town records and files at the town library, historical societies, state archives.

e) Newspaper articles – Head to the local resource room at your library and get cozy with microfilm. After you’ve used it a time or two, the nauseous feelings should subside.  Historic newspapers often had much more social content that our current papers. You can learn a lot about the local area and its people.

f) Oral history – Ask around! Word of mouth will lead you to the best sources. Asking interviewees to describe buildings and places will often give you great information.

Historic research will often be incorporated into a historical narrative about the property that serves the purpose of recording a fair history.

(2) Measured Drawings

Measured (to scale) drawings document the building as-is. The level of detail might vary, but a full set of drawings will include elevations, sections, and details. Every part and detail of the building is measured. Most are done on CAD nowadays, since it is faster than hand drawing and easier to transmit and share. In order to learn standards and proper methods, it is best to take a drafting class. For instance, different line thicknesses are used to denote types of walls. However, if you aren’t documenting a building professionally, you can do your own “measured drawings” at home. These would probably more akin to field sketches. Draw/sketch your floor plan, elevation, or detail as best as you can. Record your accurate measurements on your sketches.

When sketching your building, think of it from largest to smallest. Draw the outline or frame of the building. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Then include doors and windows. Draw and record details (window frames, cornice details) in a separate drawing so your numbers don’t get mixed together.

Measured drawings are not required by every project, but if a significant resource is to be demolished, measured drawings often serve as a form of mitigation for the loss. For buildings of national significance, the measured drawings would serve as an important research resource for the present and the future.

There is too much to say about measured drawings, but here are a few tips: 1) It is much easier with three people (one for the measuring end of the tape, one for the dumb end (aka zero end), and one to record); 2) Accept that you will probably have to go back more than once because you will inevitably forget to measure a detail; 3) If necessary for your understanding, redraw your field sketches with clear numbers and delineation; 4) Sometimes it helps to photograph a detail with the tape measure in the picture; and 5) Decide if you are rounding up or down and to which segment of the inch.

(3) Photography

Photography is perhaps the most prolific form of documentation, and some would say the easiest, thanks to the aid of digital cameras. However, good photographic documentation requires more practice than a point-and-shoot camera. Standards are changing in terms of which mediums are accepted and which types of ink, but the basics of what to photograph remain the same. To effectively document the building, be sure to include all elevations and corners (N, S, E, W elevation and NE, NW, SE, SW corners for example). These corner shots are often called record shots . Do your best to get both elevations in the picture. It is best to take an image with as little parallax distortion as possible. In other words, stand as far back as you can in order to get the entire plane within the photo frame and do not tilt the camera.  You may find yourself standing on stone walls, cars, or hanging out a window. Just be careful and do not trespass (unless you have permission)! After elevations and record shots, photograph details. Perhaps the door frame is significant or the portico columns. For interior rooms, it is important to have the ceiling, walls, and floor within the frame.

Photographs should be accompanied with the name of the subject of the photograph, the property and its location, the direction from which the picture was taken and to where it is looking, the date, and the name of the photographer. This is the basic necessary information, but, again, keep in mind your SHPO may have different requirements.

So the three main components of documentation are historical research, measured drawings, and photography. Once you are familiar with the tree (and now you are!), you can learn the standards of your organization and start practicing. Many preservation programs have classes in documentation if you are interested professionally. However, if you want to document your own house, you do not have to be a professional. Check out those deed records, draw your house floor plan, and take good, thought-out photographs. It’s fun!

Some Resources:

HABS, HAER, HALS Guidelines from the NPS

Recording Historic Structures by John Burns

Documentation cheat sheet by State of Minnesota

Sacred Places overview of Measured Drawings (very helpful!)

Vermont Division for Historic Preservation – Requirements for Photographic Documentation of Historic Structures

When in doubt, speak with your State Historic Preservation Office or State Historical Society.

 

Book: Recording Historic Structures

If you are involved in researching and documenting historic structures (buildings, structures) one of the best books you can invest in is Recording Historic Structures, edited by John A. Burns (see here).  The book covers documentation standards for HABS and HAER, discussing how to properly photograph buildings, teaching readers how to do conduct thorough historical research, and how to do measurements and drawings. Basically, this is everything you need to know for being up to par with the standards of the National Park Service. The lessons in the book are understandable and supplemented with case studies, photographs, and documents.

Aside from the technical side, the book often gives the readers thought provoking statements. One of my favorites so far is, “The effectiveness of the primary sources will depend on the questions being asked” (p. 28). It may sound obvious, but it’s a statement to remind me to stay on my toes. Even if you have all of the information in front of you, it’s only useful if you know how to use it and how something is significant to research.

I read this book for my documentation at the University of Mary Washington and I’m reading it again at UVM. While some may not want to read a textbook more than once, I’m finding that I am learning more the second time around. The beautiful hardcover book is worth the $75 investment, because it you gain more in knowledge and the book serves as a good reference manual.

Historic Bridges

Covered bridges, steel truss bridges, arch bridges, suspension bridges – all of these, and numerous other categories, are found throughout the United States. Many of these are historically significant structures.  Typically, the term historic preservation is accompanied by a mental image of a historic building, or so I would imagine. But, do we give bridges a fair amount of attention? Covered bridges are the easiest to recognize, possibly the most romanticized, but steel truss and arch bridges may be less recognizable and remembered.  The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documents buildings, while the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) handles landscape, and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documents structures such as bridges, railroads, ships, canals, and steelworks.  HABS, HALS, and HAER are programs of the National Park Service. Search the collections at the Library of Congress.

Historic bridges provide important information about previous transportation systems, routes, the locations of roads and towns, and by preserving bridges, original character of a roadway can be retained (think scenic byway).  They are just as important to historic preservation as buildings and landscape.  Many historic bridges fall into disrepair and the traffic outgrows the bridges. Sadly, instead of restoration, repair, or reinforcement, they are often replaced with new bridges.

Fortunately, many people begin with small, personal efforts to record and save structures, buildings, and landscapes. The efforts begin small and spread as other find their shared interests. Thank goodness for individual interests.  After all, HABS, HAER, and HALS can only reach so many properties scattered across the vast country in cities and down country dirt roads.  One such example of an effort is the website, Historic Bridges of the United States, which is a database of currently 29,164 bridges across the USA.  Civil engineers, preservationists, historians – all sorts of people contribute to this site.  James Baughn started the site , is the acting webmaster, and continues to add bridges. Everyone is encouraged to send information and photographs. [Read the background of the site and effort here.]

Viewers can search the database by specific geographic locations, designs of bridges, status, waterways, cities, years, roads, or builders.  Or viewers may browse randomly. The site also posts news relating to the bridges.  Even better, existing HAER reports on these bridges are listed on the website.  Each database entry includes a photograph (if available), a map with the bridge’s location, any known history, UTM coordinates, and its status.  It’s a great website and fun to browse, if you’re interested in bridges.  

The photographs below are from my Route 66 road trip in 2006.  

A rainbow curve bridge on Old Route 66 in Kansas.

A rainbow curve bridge on Old Route 66 in Kansas.

Sign at the end of the bridge. (Excuse the camera lens).

Sign at the end of the bridge. (Excuse the camera lens).

Sign at the other end of the rainbow bridge.

Sign at the other end of the rainbow bridge.